Welcome to The Valve

Valve Links

The Front Page
Statement of Purpose

John Holbo - Editor
Scott Eric Kaufman - Editor
Aaron Bady
Adam Roberts
Amardeep Singh
Andrew Seal
Bill Benzon
Daniel Green
Jonathan Goodwin
Joseph Kugelmass
Lawrence LaRiviere White
Marc Bousquet
Matt Greenfield
Miriam Burstein
Ray Davis
Rohan Maitzen
Sean McCann
Guest Authors

Laura Carroll
Mark Bauerlein
Miriam Jones

Past Valve Book Events

cover of the book Theory's Empire

Event Archive

cover of the book The Literary Wittgenstein

Event Archive

cover of the book Graphs, Maps, Trees

Event Archive

cover of the book How Novels Think

Event Archive

cover of the book The Trouble With Diversity

Event Archive

cover of the book What's Liberal About the Liberal Arts?

Event Archive

cover of the book The Novel of Purpose

Event Archive

The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Happy Trails to You

What’s an Encyclopedia These Days?

Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Intimate Enemies: What’s Opera, Doc?

Alphonso Lingis talks of various things, cameras and photos among them

Feynmann, John von Neumann, and Mental Models

Support Michael Sporn’s Film about Edgar Allen Poe

Philosophy, Ontics or Toothpaste for the Mind

Nazi Rules for Regulating Funk ‘n Freedom

The Early History of Modern Computing: A Brief Chronology

Computing Encounters Being, an Addendum

On the Origin of Objects (towards a philosophy of computation)

Symposium on Graeber’s Debt

The Nightmare of Digital Film Preservation

Richard Petti on Occupy Wall Street: America HAS a Ruling Class

Bill Benzon on Whatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhatwhat?

Nick J. on The Valve - Closed For Renovation

Bill Benzon on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Norma on Encyclopedia Britannica to Shut Down Print Operations

Bill Benzon on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

john balwit on What’s an Object, Metaphysically Speaking?

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on That Shakespeare Thing

William Ray on That Shakespeare Thing

JoseAngel on That Shakespeare Thing

Bill Benzon on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Bill Benzon on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on A Dirty Dozen Sneaking up on the Apocalypse

JoseAngel on Objects and Graeber's Debt

Advanced Search

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom

RSS 1.0 | RSS 2.0 | Atom


Powered by Expression Engine
Logo by John Holbo

Creative Commons Licence
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.



About Last Night
Academic Splat
Amardeep Singh
Bemsha Swing
Bitch. Ph.D.
Blogging the Renaissance
Butterflies & Wheels
Cahiers de Corey
Category D
Charlotte Street
Cheeky Prof
Chekhov’s Mistress
Chrononautic Log
Cogito, ergo Zoom
Collected Miscellany
Completely Futile
Confessions of an Idiosyncratic Mind
Conversational Reading
Critical Mass
Crooked Timber
Culture Cat
Culture Industry
Early Modern Notes
Easily Distracted
fait accompi
Ferule & Fescue
Ghost in the Wire
Giornale Nuovo
God of the Machine
Golden Rule Jones
Grumpy Old Bookman
Ideas of Imperfection
In Favor of Thinking
In Medias Res
Inside Higher Ed
jane dark’s sugarhigh!
John & Belle Have A Blog
John Crowley
Jonathan Goodwin
Kathryn Cramer
Languor Management
Light Reading
Like Anna Karina’s Sweater
Lime Tree
Limited Inc.
Long Pauses
Long Story, Short Pier
Long Sunday
Making Light
Maud Newton
Michael Berube
Motime Like the Present
Narrow Shore
Neil Gaiman
Old Hag
Open University
Pas au-delà
Planned Obsolescence
Quick Study
Rake’s Progress
Reader of depressing books
Reading Room
Reassigned Time
Reeling and Writhing
Return of the Reluctant
Say Something Wonderful
Shaken & Stirred
Silliman’s Blog
Slaves of Academe
Sorrow at Sills Bend
Sounds & Fury
Stochastic Bookmark
Tenured Radical
the Diaries of Franz Kafka
The Elegant Variation
The Home and the World
The Intersection
The Litblog Co-Op
The Literary Saloon
The Literary Thug
The Little Professor
The Midnight Bell
The Mumpsimus
The Pinocchio Theory
The Reading Experience
The Salt-Box
The Weblog
This Public Address
This Space: The Fire’s Blog
Thoughts, Arguments & Rants
Tingle Alley
University Diaries
Unqualified Offerings
What Now?
William Gibson

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Julie & Julia: The Reading Group Guide; or, Why English Professors Aren’t Welcome in Book Clubs

Posted by Rohan Maitzen on 09/13/09 at 07:46 PM

More and more books are published now with appendices aimed at book clubs. Typical features are interviews with the author, questions for discussion, and suggestions for further reading ("if you liked this book, you’ll also like...") . I’m always struck by how different the discussion questions are from the kinds of questions I would ask of, or prepare for, my classes. I just finished Julie & Julia, which comes with a set of “Questions and Topics for Discussion” which epitomize what I think of as the book club approach. Here they are, with my answers, and then some reflections on where or why things fall apart for me.

1. Julie has such a remarkable relationship with Julia Child, despite never having met her. What did you think of the relationship that Julie built in her mind? And why does it not matter, in some sense, when Julie finds out that Julia wasn’t an admirer of hers or the Project?

I thought there was something artificial about the way Julie presented her “relationship” with Julia Child. Although allusions to and references from Child’s memoir and letters are included in Powell’s book, the narrative does not indicate that she knew anything much about Julia Child when the project began. She suggests that she learns about JC’s personality from the text of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, and sometimes her examples illustrate this well. Otherwise, though, she does seem to be largely imagining someone without her own weaknesses and failings. I guess that’s why it doesn’t ultimately matter much to Julie that the real JC dismisses her project.

2. Throughout the book, various people become involved with the Project: Julie’s husband, her friends, and several of her family members. Discuss the different roles each played in the Project. Which people were most helpful and supportive? Who was occasionally obstructionist?

Julie’s husband and brother and friend Isabel are the most supportive. Julie’s mother is occasionally obstructionist. Are you checking to see if I read the whole book?

3. Did you find Julie to be a likable character? Did you relate to her insecurities, anxieties, and initial discontent? Why do you think it is that she was able to finish the Project despite various setbacks?

No, I didn’t find Julie that likable (I liked the Amy Adams version of her better, actually). I did not particularly “relate to” her anxieties and so on, except in the general way that everyone sometimes finds their day job tedious. She struck me as self-indulgent and self-involved; she is histrionic and something of an exhibitionist. But why does it matter whether I liked her or not?

I think she was able to finish the Project because she was persistent.

4. The Julie/Julia Project is obsessive and chaotic, yet it manages to bring a sort of order to Julie’s life. Have you ever gone to obsessive lengths in an attempt to, ironically, make things more manageable? Why do you think Julie does (or doesn’t) succeed in this?

No I haven’t.

Because she’s persistent? Because she got lucky?

5. If someone were to ask you about this book, how would you describe it? Is it a memoir of reinvention? An homage to Julia Child? A rags-to-riches story? A reflection on cooking and the centrality of food in our lives? Or is it all (or none) of these?

It’s “life writing,” isn’t it? I’d say it is a bit of all of these specific things, in a mash-up sort of way.

6. Did Julie’s exploits in her tiny kitchen make you want to cook? Or did they make you thankful that you don’t have to debone a duck or saute a liver? Even if your tastes may not coincide with Julia Child’s recipes, did the book give you a greater appreciation of food and cooking?

Want to cook? No, not really, at least not more than usual. I certainly have no desire to debone a duck or saute a liver. I have never particularly enjoyed cooking (and I hate planning and shoppping for meals). On the other hand, I grew up in a house where good food was much appreciated and always a big part of family and festive occasions. Some of the scenes in which Julie’s friends gathered to share her latest experiments, then, did make me wistful that for various reasons food in my own house is often a difficulty rather than a pleasure, and that the rest of my family is too far away to share in the few special meals we do put together. But why are we talking about me? Isn’t this “reading” group supposed to talk about the book?

7. At various points in the book, Julie finds that cooking makes her question her own actions and values. What did you make of her lobster guilt, for example, or her thoughts on extracting bone marrow? Have you ever encountered these issues while cooking, or while going through other everyday motions of life? Have you come to conclusions similar to or different from Julie’s?

Well, I’ve eaten lobster, and I can’t say I was ever terribly guilt-ridden about it. But every thoughtful person has presumably wondered about the ethics of eating meat, even if they haven’t personally extracted bone marrow. But why are we talking about me again?

8. When Julie began the Project, she knew little to nothing about blogging. What do you think blogging about her experiences offered her? Does writing about events in your life help you understand and appreciate them more? Do you think the project would have gone differently if the blog hadn’t gained so much attention? Who was the blog mainly for, Julie or her readers?

I think blogging offered her a platform, an audience, and eventually a community. I’m not sure if writing about events in my life helps me understand them. It helps me give form and voice to my own point of view, but that’s not necessarily the same as achieving understanding. Yes, of course the project would have gone differently if the blog hadn’t gained so much attention. She might have given up on the project; she certainly would not have gotten the book deal or the movie. The blog was mainly for Julie in the beginning; it became something she was also doing for, and with the reinforcement of, her readers. (On the other hand, her term “bleaders” captures the rather dismissive tone she often takes towards the people who cared enough to send her money and goodies.) But the book isn’t just a transcription of the blog. Actually, I wish it were: maybe then there would have been more cooking and less solipsistic meandering.

It’s not that there aren’t some potentially interesting topics here--and of course this particular set is skewed in a particular direction because the book is a memoir (of sorts) and so tempts us towards analysis of, and commentary on, its protagonist as a real person. Still, there’s very little sense here of the book as a literary construction, or of the book as offering not just personal revelations but revelations about particular cultures and problems at particular moments in time. What about the gender politics of cooking in the two different eras, something I thought the film actually handled much more directly? (Surely it is no coincidence that the one editor who “gets” the brilliance of Mastering the Art of French Cooking in the film, for instance, is a woman who takes it home and actually cooks from it?) How does Julie’s gleeful self-presentation as a foul-mouthed slattern (maggots under the dish rack?) complicate the conventional association of cooking with domesticity? How are Julie’s gynecological problems relevant to the book’s interrogation of femininity and identity? What’s the function of the Isabel sub-plot? How are love, sex, and marriage configured in the parallel Julie / Julia stories? For that matter, what about sex and food, Julie’s rival sources of pleasure? What about the structure of the book, or its language? What about the profanity, which Julie seems rather proud of? There seems to me plenty to be said and done about Julie & Julia without dragging me into it: it’s not about me, and I learn nothing (and explain nothing) about the book by falling into personal anecdote.

I think #5 and #8 are the best of this question set: #5 could open up a range of issues about genre, especially life writing: what we expect from it, what the models and conventions are, how autobiographical voices are gendered, how social networking has affected our ideas of privacy and friendship, and so on; #8, if it kept away from speculation about how things might have gone (now there’s a fruitless direction for discussion!), points towards what is probably the most novel feature of this entire phenomenon (its roots in blogging) and raises important questions about voice (again) and audience. Otherwise, many of these questions are exactly the kind of thing I steer my classes away from. In particular, it’s not relevant whether you like the character: literature is not a popularity contest or a beauty pageant, and characters you hate may be the most important to understanding what a book is doing. “Relatable” characters are usually ones that don’t make us think, that we’re perfectly comfortable, and thus mentally passive, with. And there’s no merit in sympathizing with someone you can “relate to,” after all--no possibility for moral growth. While your personal experience (with food, say, in this case) inevitably affects your initial response, sharing anecdotes is also at best a warm-up exercise for literary analysis. At the end of the day, the characters in the book are not you, their experience is not your experience, and the point of the exercise is not personal enlightenment or self-revelation, but something far more other-directed, something that respects the book as offering you something rather than reflecting you back at yourself.



"But why are we talking about me? Isn’t this “reading” group supposed to talk about the book?”

--No; reading groups are for groups of people to have conversations that begin with books and move away from them, towards each other’s lives.  The reading group, one might say, talks “with” the book.  The list of questions might be taken to imply a pedagogical motive similar to that of the academic classroom--but I think to do so is a mistake....

By on 09/14/09 at 06:00 AM | Permanent link to this comment

Why do you hate yourself? It is all about you. By your age most people have figured that out.

By on 09/16/09 at 05:06 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve occasionally looked over lists of reading group questions to mine them for my English classes, but because of personal quality of such questions, I’ve almost never used what I’ve found.

I’ve also never belonged to a book club, but I get the impression that they try to be democratic: all reactions, interpretations, and opinions are welcome. I’m sure social dynamics can mess this plan up well, i.e., Reader A dominates the discussion and tells people what to think, Reader B wants to date Reader C and therefore shapes his/her comments with this goal in mind, etc.

In the classroom, I’m supposed to be the expert and the one who evaluates students’ responses. Even in an open-ended discussion, I suspect my role as the evaluator never disappears.

I wonder if book group participants end up feeling like they “own” their reading experiences more than college students do. Unlike a college student, a reading group participant might not have any specific expectations attached to her performance as a reader.

By on 09/16/09 at 10:47 PM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve belonged to a book club for years. We used to write our own questions, which was interesting, but now there’s almost always a set of them in the back of the book or on the web. The questions for fiction are much, much worse than the ones you used as an example, because they often confuse fictional narrative and fictional characters with some sort of documentary. They suggest a level of personal analysis of characters that’s not supported by the text, they ask for speculation about what happened outside the story or after it when it’s not supported by the text, etc. I agree with your title: it’s not my English professors’ discussion approach.

By on 09/17/09 at 07:40 PM | Permanent link to this comment

@m: I’ve seen question sets like that in novels too, and they really do irk me worse than the ones in Julie & Julia, for just the reasons you give--speculation about what else happens (or happened in the past), for instance, as if there is a reality outside the text.

By Rohan Maitzen on 09/18/09 at 10:55 AM | Permanent link to this comment

It seems like another problem with book club questions provided by the publisher, judging from the Julie and Julia examples, is that it’s in their interests to take it as a given that the book is really good.  Look at the first one: “Julie has such a remarkable relationship with Julia Child.” It presumes that the book achieves what it wants to, which should be an open question.

By tomemos on 09/22/09 at 11:31 AM | Permanent link to this comment

I’ve not seen any books with such questions qued up at the back so I don’t have any sense of what those question sets are about beyond what Rohan has listed and what’s appeared in the comments. Nonetheless, I’ve got a comment or two.

First, there was a time when speculation about the lives of characters outside the text was respectable in professional literary criticism. I can’t say that I’ve read any of that criticism, though F. C. Bradley’s Shakespearean Tragedy moves up to the edge. Such interest seems “natural” to me. I saw lots of that kind of speculation in an online discussion group devoted to “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.” The most concrete expression of such interest is, of course, fan fiction aka fanfic, fan-written stories about characters beyond events presented in the “canon”—a term of art in the fan world as well as in the professional litcrit world. I say this, not to advocate a return to such commentary in professional criticism, but simply as an observation.

Second, it seems to me that personally-oriented questions are also “natural” enough, especially in a world that’s full of Oprahism and Jerry Springerism on TV. After all, isn’t “know thyself” a classic admonition, and don’t these questions tend in that direction?

Not that I think such questions are (entirely) appropriate for classroom use, though I do remember saying quite the opposite to some of my (feminist) friends back in those heady days of the late 60s. Sure, I said, use literature in the classroom for self-exploration and for “consciousness raising” (is that phrase in current use at all?).

And that brings me to my final observation. Discussion groups are constituted quite differently from college or university classes. Discussion groups are purely voluntary and can go on for years. People can come to know one another quite well in such groups, making informal intimacy possible and even desirable. College or university classes last only a semester or two and a given student’s presence in the class may or may not be entirely voluntary. Such classes are thus inherently more formal that discussion groups. That alone affects the tenor of conversation.

By Bill Benzon on 09/23/09 at 05:52 PM | Permanent link to this comment

Add a comment:



Remember my personal information

Notify me of follow-up comments?

Please enter the word you see in the image below: